With all of the rumors surrounding the fate of the F-body, it's easy to get lost in the fog. What will become of the Pontiac's fabulous Firebird? Will the F-body will be dead for 2003? Probably. That much is a given at this point. So what of a new platform for the ponycar? Will it return with the Camaro on shared platform as has been tradition? Will it get its own platform? Will it return at all? Who knows?
One thing that I do know is that for 2002 we still have an F-body-based Firebird. Moreover, we have the Firehawk as well, so we best enjoy them while they are still here. Enjoying and testing the 2002 Firehawks was the point of the whole trip to Detroit this past May, where a select group of automotive journalists were invited to ring out the latest rendition of SLP's grownup tuner car.
The plan was simple, fly into Motor City, have dinner and conversation with the SLP crew including the owner Ed Hamburger, get a good night's sleep followed by a catered breakfast at the famed Pontiac Silverdome and drive some Hawks. After a presentation by Reg Harris, Director of Public Relations and Marketing, provided a history and highlighted changes for 2002, we headed out to the Silverdome's expansive parking lot. There, poised at the ready, was a row of Firehawks and Camaro SSs, and a six-cylinder Firebird GT and Camaro RS. A Ford Ranger dubbed the "Thunderbolt" was in attendance too but that is story for another magazine.
A tight gymkhana course was prepared for us to ring out the new Hawks in the twisties and, if you desired, the SLP machines could be driven on a test loop on Detroit streets to test its mettle in the pot-holed real world. Following a brief stroll around the F-bodies and a jaunt through the cones with golf carts to learn the lay of the land, we were off. According to SLP, all of the Firehawks were fitted with the optional Bilstein Ultra Performance Suspension System and the GT sported its optional up level suspension package.
DRIVING THE 2002s
As expected, the Bilstein-equipped Firehawks took to the cones like ... (insert your cliched metaphor here. They had ample stick, precise transitional qualities and plenty of power for the short course on which we were testing. Wind it up in the straights, brake hard at the outside entry to the corner to transfer weight to the front wheels to aid turn-in, clip the apex and hammer it to get out. Tons-o-fun.
In stark contrast was the GT. With a V6, an automatic trans, smaller tires and less of everything, the GT actually took more concentration than the Hawk at times. Reason being that the Firehawk had so much stick and so much power that even a schmuck could look like a hero because the attributes of the vehicle could forgive poor and late driving decisions. Enter a corner too hot? Slam on the brakes to reduce the speed, turn and mash the throttle to kick the rear around. Don't have the dexterity to downshift to First to power out of the one really tight corner? Nevermind, leave it in Second and the LS1 will push you through with little embarrassment.
Not so the V6. The little GT was probably head and shoulders above a stock V6 Bird given the larger stabilizer bars, but it was no match for the Firehawk and its unfair to compare the two directly. It would have been nice to have a Hawk with the standard suspension to compare against the Bilstein-equipped Pontiac and a stock six-cylinder Firebird to stack up against the GT but it was not to be. The GT demanded more ground to get up to speed and required earlier braking points. With low torque and the automatic transmission, powering out of corners was much tougher. Also, there of course was less lateral stick with the smaller tires and transient response was less crisp. To get the GT through the course quickly required more space to let the Bird slide around corners.
For the budget-minded, the GT is still fun to drive and since life does not revolve around gymkhana courses, you could be very happy with this Bird. The Bilstein-equipped Hawk on the other hand was a pleasure to drive anywhere with its dual-purpose suspension and robust horsepower on tap. With the seat time discussed, let's see what's new and/or optional for 2002.
NEW FOR 2002 AND OPTIONAL EQUIPMENT
Included in 2002 models built after August 2001 is a High Flow Induction System. The new air box lid and filter are designed to produce a 10 hp increase over last year's model for a total of 345. According to chief engineer Jeff Yachnin, "The air lid and box for the Firehawk are the same size as stock, but the noise attenuators have been removed. Air entry into the mass airflow sensor has been made smoother and SLP added a Donaldson paper air filter for better flow over the factory piece." He also explained, "The reason it costs more than other aftermarket designs is because it's made to O.E. spec. having been designed for the correct connections and from the same material as original equipment. There is no external filter necessary and the SLP unit carries a full 3-year 36,000 warranty, so you won't have to remove it and replace it with the stock equipment before going to the dealer for maintenance or warranty work."
Fresh for the new model year is the expanded availability of the rear spoiler, seen first on last year's 10th Anniversary edition. Now it can be had on Trans Am coupe-based Firehawks and it's fitted to the model that we photographed--the price is $699. For a fee, your 17x9-inch Firehawk aluminum wheels can be delivered chrome plated as they are on our feature Hawk. Premium front floor mats are optional as well and can be seen in the interior photos. A custom rear deck mat with logo is in the offing and it can include your car build number, if desired, or even your name. A commemorative portfolio and a car cover could also be ordered at extra cost. For drag and or road racers, a High Torque Performance Differential from Auburn is available.
WHAT DO YOU GET WITH THE WU6 FIREHAWK OPTION PACKAGE FOR $4,299?
Check the box marked WU6 on your F-body order form to purchase a new Firehawk. Built in the St. Therese assembly plant in Quebec, the Firehawks are then shipped to SLP's LaSalle, Quebec facility for final assembly and are delivered back to GM, which sends the vehicles to the dealers.
The basic package for 2002 includes the composite twin-scooped, twin heat extractor equipped hood and High Flow Induction System. Prior to August 2001, the Firehawk option price is listed at $3,995, as the new induction system will be installed on models built after that date (F-body production for 2002 begins early, which provides an extended selling season in its last year).
SLP's cat-back exhaust system is included with its 3-inch intermediate pipes, snarling muffler and 2.5-inch tailpipe, which conspire to increase output by 10 hp. While in the past 1LE trans mounts were installed on Firehawks at SLP's facility, according to the company, Firebirds of late seem to be coming off the line with the 1LE trans mount already in place.
17X9-inch silver-painted aluminum wheels of SLP's own design are shod with Firestone Firehawk SZ50 tires in the familiar 275/40-17 size. Beneath the sheetmetal, the WS6 32mm front and 19mm rear stabilizer bars remain, as does the 290 pounds per inch linear rate front springs and 115 pounds per inch linear rate rear springs. A power steering cooler and jounce bumper spacers are part of the WS6 package so they stay as well. SLP does add the panhard bar from the famed 1LE suspension package.
Inside, you'll find a Firehawk plaque on the console. SLP ceased numbering the vehicles individually a few years ago for a variety of reasons. If you are curious as to what place your Firehawk occupies in production history, you can provide SLP with your VIN and the company will reply with your build number.
To complement the appearance of the hood and wheel/tire package, a Firehawk badge is applied to the front fascia and "Firehawk" script is added to the lower doors and rear bumper. If that's not enough, SLP sweetens the pot with a pair of Firehawk key fobs.
OPTIONAL SUSPENSION PACKAGES
Of course the Firehawk experience begins but it does not end with the WU6 option. As would be true of any tuner car worth its salt (though you would be hard-pressed at this point to consider the Hawk, which is delivered directly from the GM assembly line to SLP for final assembly and then and sold though Pontiac dealers, a "Tuner" car), SLP offers upgrades for the underpinnings to meet the performance desires of the purchaser.
Bilstein Ultra Performance Suspension is designed with a dual purpose to cover the corner cravers who still desire a comfortable ride, as evidenced by the progressive rate springs front and rear. The 1LE is the legendary limited-production suspension package that was first developed for the Third Gen. F-bodies. This setup caters more to the road racer who wants to feel every pebble (note the spring rates as compared to the Bilstein package and the factory suspension) and who desires the adjustability afforded them by the Koni shocks. According to SLP, the company is the exclusive distributor of the 1LE package.
BILSTEIN ULTRA PERFORMANCE SUSPENSION SYSTEM
35mm front stabilizer bar
21mm rear stabilizer bar
Reinforced stabilizer bar brackets and special end-links
Bilstein shocks, recalibrated to SLP specs.
Progressive-rate front springs 223 to 448 lb.-per-inch
Progressive-rate rear springs 97 to 136 lb.-per-inch
Rear trailing arms with 1LE bushings
1LE panhard bar
Option Price: $999
1LE SUSPENSION SYSTEM
35mm front stabilizer bar
21mm rear stabilizer bar
Reinforced stabilizer bar brackets and special end-links
Double-adjustable Koni shocks
Linear-rate front springs: 360 lb.-per-inch
Progressive-rate rear springs 130-170 lb.-per-inch
Front lower control arms with higher durometer bushings
Rear trailing arms with higher durometer bushings
Panhard bar with higher durometer bushings
Option Price: $1,850.
INSIDE THE FIREBIRD GT
The insurance beater of the SLP arsenal for 2002 is the Firebird GT, which was first introduced last year. Based on the 3.8 liter V6 Firebird coupe (available with T-tops too), the GT option runs $599 and includes body striping and GT decals, and it inherits the stock LS1 cat-back exhaust system with dual twin outlets for a 5 hp increase.
Should you decide to make your six-cylinder GT a corner carver, SLP offers a suspension upgrade for $199 that adds the 32 mm front stabilizer bar paired with the19mm rear bar straight from the LS1 Bird. An optional 16x8-inch wheel from the Trans Am will be offered in 2002 but the factory installed 235/55-16 Goodyear tires will remain.
As the Firehawk has become more mainstream in its 11-year existence, some collectors feel that it has lost exclusivity and discontinuing the console plate numbering has only reinforced that perception. However, all of the attributes that create a desirable collectible are in place. Firehawks are rare--only 600 made last year, they feature a distinctive look and increased straight-line and cornering performance over a stock WS6 Bird. And, for those who enjoy driving, the Firehawk can be tailored to your driving style with the suspension setups offered.
Love 'em or just like 'em, the 2002 Firehawks will probably be the last to be based on the F-body platform. That alone makes it an instant collectible. Load it up with options like the Bilstein or 1LE suspension and order it on the Trans Am coupe with the optional spoiler and you'll own a sharp collectible that will offer years of behind-the-wheel thrills. The choice is yours, but get 'em while they are hot before the F-body platform fades into extinction.